These history-rich neighbors in the Boston suburbs have an appeal that always feels up to date.
By Cynthia Anderson
Feb 17 2021
Local shops line Concord’s classic Main Street.Photo Credit : Nina Gallant
Please note that many establishments throughout New England have closed, temporarily closed, or may be operating under modified conditions in response to the COVID-19 health crisis. Please travel responsibly, and check with state guidelines and individual businesses before making travel plans.
Interested in Revolutionary War sites? Literary tourism? The transcendentalist movement? Just outside Boston, the neighboring towns of Lexington and Concord offer all this, along with miles of inviting paths and waterways.
In Concord, especially, military and literary history commingle. Take the Old Manse, where minister William Emerson lived. Legend holds that early on April 19, 1775, Emerson walked from the house to nearby North Bridge to steady the hearts of men gathering to confront the British. Emerson died a year later after falling sick at Fort Ticonderoga, but the Old Manse housed Emerson family members for decades to come—including, eventually, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote the transcendentalist text “Nature.” Later, author Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife rented the house; Henry David Thoreau planted them a garden.
After arriving in town, stroll thegrounds of the Old Manse all the way down to the Concord River and across the bridge to the slope where the minutemen readied for that first large-scale conflict. You’ll see the plaques and the monuments, but mostly you’ll sense the weight of deeply lived and long-remembered lives.
A place to stay: The 300-year-old Colonial Inn in Concord offers 56 rooms—some historic, others contemporary—and easy access to the downtown shops. It also has a restaurant and tavern, and there’s lots of colonial ambiance in the common areas, including a stone fireplace that invites relaxation. Expect mostly traditional fare—good chicken potpie, ditto the pot roast—and a fine Sunday brunch.
For a bit more luxury, head to the Inn at Hastings Park in Lexington. With 22 rooms spread over three buildings, this inn feels like a cross between a high-end boutique hotel and an elegant old home. You’ll dine well at either place, but if you’re at Hastings Park, try the lobster fritters, succulent lamb or halibut, and gold-dusted s’mores.
Start your day on the Lexington Green. Here, 70 or so farmers, shopkeepers, and political leaders confronted the British troops marching west from Boston early on the morning of April 19. A quick scramble brings you up to the Old Belfry, which sounded a warning after Paul Revere rode into town with word that the British were coming. The Lexington visitor center and Buckman Tavern, where the local militia were headquartered, will fill in your gaps about what else happened. Also worth seeing, about three miles away, is the Munroe Tavern, commandeered by the British as their headquarters and field hospital.
A note about the places described here: They’re worth visiting even if some of the buildings are closed. At most sites, plaques and signs abound, and your cell phone can answer questions. Also, if you’re drawn to the history, time your trip to include the annual Patriots’ Day reenactment of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which begins at dawn on the Lexington Green.
From Lexington, it’s a short hop to Concord. In fact, if you brought your bike you can ride the seven miles, which includes the bicycle-and-pedestrian-only Battle Road Trail.
In Concord you’ve got lots of options for your afternoon. After picking up lunch provisions at the Concord Cheese Shop, you can dive back into Revolutionary War history by trying the cell phone audio tour that begins just off the parking lot of the Minute Man National Historical Park visitor center; among its 13 stops along the Battle Road is the site where Paul Revere was captured. Also near the visitor center is the Robbins House: Originally inhabited by descendants of Revolutionary War veteran Caesar Robbins, a former slave, the house is now an African American history museum.
To learn more about the area’s literary and transcendentalist history, check out Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, where she wrote Little Women. Alcott and her three sisters socialized with many of their transcendentalist parents’ friends, including Thoreau and Emerson. Alcott wrote a poem titled “Thoreau’s Flute” for the former and borrowed books from the latter’s well-stocked library.
If Orchard House is closed, you can still explore the grounds, including the Gothic Revival building that housed the Concord School of Philosophy, founded by Alcott’s father, Bronson, and the Little Women Garden, with a section each for Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. You can also walk two minutes east down the street to Wayside House, where the Alcotts also lived for a while, as did Hawthorne.
If you’d like your transcendentalist history in a more visceral form, pay a visit to Walden Pond. Thoreau lived here two years, two months, and two days in a small cabin he built, an experience that later inspired him to writeWalden. Look for a replica of Thoreau’s cabin by the parking lot. You can walk the pond’s 1.7-mile perimeter or, assuming the day is warm, take a dip in its clear waters. If there’s time before the sun goes down, circle back to downtown Concord and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Alcott are buried on a knoll known as Author’s Ridge.
Try dinner at the popular 80 Thoreau in Concord or at Woods Hill Table, a fine farm-to-table eatery in West Concord. If you’re a night owl and the evening is nice, consider driving over to Codman Farm in Lincoln. The small 24-hour store inside the barn has everything from turmeric honey to local kombucha, along with ready-to-eat snacks like meat sticks and fig bars. (By day, this same farm bursts with life in springtime: new chicks and piglets, and luscious blooms on ancient lilacs.)
On Sunday you can walk the Battle Road from the Old North Bridge east. This is the route the British took during their retreat from Concord. Word spread quickly among the Americans that the British were headed back to Boston. Bands of militia kept intercepting them, at times shooting from behind boulders and trees, killing a total of 73 men. Revolution had begun. As Thomas Paine put it: “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must … undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”
If you’re traveling with kids, you may want to take some Sunday time to hop in kayaks or a canoe at the South Bridge Boat House and paddle the usually gentle Sudbury River. Another family option is Drumlin Farm in nearby Lincoln, which offers a busy farmyard, a wildlife sanctuary, and four miles of easy trails. And don’t miss a chance to check out the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum—even if all there’s time for is a look at the contemporary sculptures on the museum’s expansive grounds.
You’ll likely come away from your weekend with lots to think about: art and literature and the nation’s rich and complex history (and present).
Editors’ note: This post has been revised to correct the version that appeared in the March/April issue of Yankee, which erroneously stated that the Concord Cheese Shop is open on Sunday.